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Friday briefing: How do you solve a problem like the Northern Ireland protocol?

By Nimo Omer
Liz Truss said yesterday that unless the EU gives way on the protocol, she will have “no choice but to act'”.
Liz Truss said yesterday that unless the EU gives way on the protocol, she will have “no choice but to act'”. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

Good morning. The UK is holding negotiations with the EU about parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, and if that feels like deja vu, that’s because it is. After six years of deadlocks, impasses and stalemates, it feels like politics has gone back to square one.

First, the Democratic Unionist party said it would not join the power-sharing assembly at Stormont without changes to the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol. Then foreign secretary Liz Truss said yesterday that unless the EU gives way she will have “no choice but to act” during a “tetchy” conversation with Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European Commission.

The decision to contest the protocol has caused some diplomatic alarm: the US is so concerned that it is sending an emergency delegation to London, the Guardian reports today. Officials in Brussels are said to be “flabbergasted” and there’s even concern within Truss’s own party. But at least one man is calm. In the Telegraph, former Brexit minister David Frost writes that Boris Johnson should just rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol – and even compared it to the prime minister’s handling of the war in Ukraine.

So. A lot going on. To make sense of it all, I spoke to the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent, Rory Carroll. First, here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Nato | Finland must apply to join Nato without delay, the country’s president and prime minister have said. After decades of military non-alignment, the Nordic country made the historic move in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  2. Partygate | More than 100 fixed-penalty notices have now been handed out for breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street and Whitehall, the Metropolitan police said. Boris Johnson is understood to not be among those in a new set of fines.

  3. Climate crisis | The world’s leading energy economist has warned against investing in “carbon bomb” oil and gas developments. After the publication of a Guardian investigation, Fatih Birol of the IEA called for a “cleaner and more secure energy system”.

  4. Covid | Six people have died amid an “explosive” spread of fever, North Korean state media has announced, a day after it admitted for the first time ever that an outbreak of Covid had occurred.

  5. Politics | Boris Johnson has demanded that ministers reduce their staff to free up cash to spend on the cost of living crisis. 90,000 jobs in the civil service could be cut.

In depth: What happened to Northern Ireland’s ‘great deal’

Boris Johnson signing the official European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, inside Downing Street.
Boris Johnson signing the official European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, inside Downing Street. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright

It’s been over two years since Boris Johnson signed the EU withdrawal agreement, and celebrated an achievement which had eluded Theresa May. That victory was rooted in what he claimed was a “great deal” for Northern Ireland – a special arrangement which avoided a trade-and-customs border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by putting one in the Irish Sea instead. The Northern Ireland protocol, as it became known, was presented by Johnson as conclusive. But always lurking was an uncertainty that has arisen again this week. Here’s a guide to what’s happening:


***

Brexit is back – again

Not that it ever really went away. After a hiatus due to the war in Ukraine, negotiations with the EU about the protocol have resumed and foreign secretary Liz Truss has come out swinging, threatening to unilaterally scrap important sections of the protocol if the EU does not show the “requisite flexibility”. The EU has said previously that there will be severe and immediate consequences, at worst a trade war, if the UK were to go through with something like this. That would have serious consequences for the whole of the UK – but especially Northern Ireland, where a new government is yet to form at Stormont after last week’s elections.

***

Sinn Féin’s victory

In a historic victory last week, Sinn Féin became the biggest party in the Stormont assembly, winning 29% of the vote. It’s a seismic moment for the party, Rory Carroll says, because for the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history, a nationalist party has emerged triumphant. This victory is largely “symbolic and psychological”, Rory explains, “and in the Northern Ireland context that’s really important: symbolism has an exaggerated impact”.

Rory calls Sinn Féin’s victory “a wake up call” for the DUP, because it will boost Sinn Féin’s campaign for a referendum on the unification of Ireland. “Not in the short term,” he adds. “We’re looking at least a medium term, five years, probably more before that may happen, if it happens.”

For most people, however, life will continue as normal: “this makes no real meaningful difference in the day to day because Sinn Féin have been in government for 15 years in Northern Ireland and will continue to be”. Despite the importance politically for Sinn Féin’s leader to move from deputy first minister to putative first minister, the roles have identical powers. “One can’t order a toasted sandwich without the other signing off on that,” Rory says. So in practical terms, it should not make any difference to the running of Northern Ireland. But one part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement could derail that altogether.

***

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

As the EU has border checks when certain goods, particularly food, arrive from non-EU countries, when the UK voted to leave there was a major problem – what happens between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? Putting a border in place would threaten the Good Friday Agreement, something both sides have stressed their commitment to protecting.

And so the Northern Ireland protocol was born – instead of border checks happening between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, they were to happen between Northern Ireland and Great Britain instead. It was an imperfect solution to an impossible problem, but the protocol was enshrined in international law. Rory wrote a great explainer on what it is, why it matters and what it will mean for the future of Northern Ireland.

***

What does this mean for Northern Ireland?

The Democratic Unionist party has two main problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, Rory tells me: it’s hurting Northern Ireland’s economy and it undermines its position in the UK, by creating a de facto border between Northern Ireland and Britain. And so, in response, the DUP has said that it will block the formation of a power-sharing administration unless Downing Street radically changes the protocol.

If this were to happen, it would send Northern Ireland into a political crisis, creating what Rory has described as a “zombified form of local government”. Some ministers from the outgoing executive would stay on – but with much reduced responsibilities and powers. “They kind of keep the lights on, just about, but they cannot make any major decisions or launch new initiatives.”

Northern Ireland is pretty familiar with this set up: in 2017 Sinn Féin blocked power sharing over a dispute with the DUP and Stormont was suspended for three years. In January, it was the DUP’s turn to press the stop button and suspend the executive.

This means constraints on spending because there’s nobody to sign crucial budgetary decisions. A government that can barely function means that the public are left in the lurch: “Northern Ireland’s got a serious health care crisis,” Rory says, “it’s got some of the worst waiting lists and health metrics in the UK. There’s a consensus in Northern Ireland that healthcare is a disaster and needs urgent attention.”

So when rumblings of another government shutdown surfaced, health care professionals started to panic. “We’ve had a joint statement from five medical organisations, including the British Medical Association Northern Ireland and the Royal College of GPs, where they are pleading with politicians in Northern Ireland to form an executive because if they don’t, they say, it will compound the crisis in healthcare and will risk the lives of patients.” Rory tells me. “That’s how high the stakes are.”

It’s a dilemma: on the one hand, a stable government in Northern Ireland depends on some revision to the Northern Ireland protocol. But on the other, threatening to withdraw unilaterally risks the economy for the entirety of the UK. And in the midst of all this political noise, one thing is clear: the people on the sharp end of this political paralysis are the public.

What else we’ve been reading

  • While I admit a special personal interest in Electronic Arts losing the Fifa licence for football games, you don’t need to share my nerdy predilections to find Keith Stuart’s piece interesting – just a curiosity about who wins in a battle between quality products and familiar brands, and why. Archie

  • Cryptocurrency was supposed to level the playing field, it was supposed to democratise by decentralising power. But the jig is up David A Banks argues in this brilliant piece that examines the murky world of crypto and digital assets. Nimo

  • Few subjects for the venerable Ranked series are more obviously compelling than Paul Verhoeven, and there’s only one question: is Showgirls a preposterous turkey or a camp masterpiece? Anne Billson decides. Archie

  • I loved this piece by Raphael Rashid who spoke to photographer Kim Dong-hyun about the cool and stylish senior citizens of Seoul who’s wardrobes have endless flair. Nimo

  • Daniel Trilling writes for the LRB on a book by Ciaran Thapar about his time as a youth worker in south London. The piece (like the book, by the sounds of it) is an indispensable examination of how preconceptions about “knife crime” harm the young Black men assumed to be the perpetrators. Archie

Wagatha Christie latest

Rebekah Vardy endured another day of cross-examination at the hands of Coleen Rooney’s barrister, David Sherborne, yesterday – admitting that she knew her agent, Caroline Watt, had forwarded private information about Rooney to the Sun in the past, and accused of “throwing her under the bus” to protect herself. Jim Waterson, reporting from the high court, witnessed Vardy’s grilling – including an excrutiating exchange about the nature of the watery grave her agent’s mobile phone had ended up in, a rather terse response to an everyday colloquialism and a debate about the nature of the 😂 emoji.

***

At one point Rooney’s barrister described a WhatsApp message in a conversation between Vardy and Watt that included the words “poor Coleen” followed by “laughing emojis”. Vardy told the court she disputed this characterisation: “I don’t know whether they’re laughing emojis.” The lawyer, in an apparent reference to the 😂 emoji, replied: “OK, crying with laughter.”

Sport

Cricket | Brendon McCullum has been confirmed as the new coach of England’s men’s Test team. The New Zealander said he would look to “bring about change” in the dressing room after a long period of poor form.

Football | Tottenham Hotspur beat Arsenal in a stunning victory last night by 3-0 to ensure the battle for the final Champions League spot will go to the wire.

Golf | Amnesty International criticised Greg Norman for “seriously misguided” comments about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Norman, chief executive of a Saudi-backed golf investment firm, said of the killing: “we’ve all made mistakes”.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 13 May 2022
Guardian front page, 13 May 2022. Photograph: Guardian

In the Guardian print edition today, the lead story is “US team flies in amid fears over Northern Ireland deal”. The Express has “Defiant Truss … we’ll rip up Brexit border deal”. The Telegraph says “Frost: PM must brave it out over protocol” while the i splashes with “Lords try to delay Truss from tearing up Brexit pact”. The Times has “Tories risk losing next election, Hunt tells PM” and says the former cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt won’t rule out a leadership bid. “The home of UK’s worst Covid law-breakers” – the Mirror’s verdict after more than 100 fines were issued for No 10 parties. The Daily Mail says “91,000 civil service jobs will be axed” after Boris Johnson ordered that one in five must go. “Shot in the back” – the Metro leads on a Russian atrocity in Ukraine. The Financial Times leads on crypto: “Tether’s peg to the dollar snaps as ‘fragile’ stablecoin market takes hit”. “She’s Dame Debs” – the Sun reports on the podcaster Deborah James receiving an honour for her account of having incurable bowel cancer.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

Vortex. Directed by Gaspar Noé
Vortex. Directed by Gaspar Noé Photograph: Courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment

TV
Will Young: Losing My Twin Rupert (Channel 4)
This is a rare beast: a celebrity documentary that has an articulate subject, an affecting story and a sense of mission. Often, films in this genre induce an uncomfortable sense that the makers are exploiting grief. This, however, is an unflinching portrait of sadness that acknowledges the complexity around addiction. – Lucy Mangan

Music
The Smile – A Light for Attracting Attention
There’s no getting around the fact that the debut album from The Smile – Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Tom Skinner of Sons of Kemet – sounds exactly like Radiohead: more so than Yorke’s impressionistic, sketchy solo albums. Arguably there’s nothing head-spinningly different here, but you would have a hard time arguing that it isn’t exceptionally good. – Alexis Petridis

Film
Vortex
Gaspar Noé brings his cauterisingly fierce gaze to the spectacle of old age. Here, death is the vortex: the dark focus, whose gravitational pull gets stronger – and harder to avoid thinking about – with every passing year. In showing us that death is chaotic – like life – this is a work of wintry maturity, and real compassion. – Peter Bradshaw

Podcast
Kermode & Mayo’s Take
Having escaped the BBC yoke, the UK’s premier film grumps return with a sparkling new podcast. While it retains lots of the previous show’s charm, they’re still finding their feet. And they have to read ads, which they obviously hate. Still, freedom, eh?
Laura Snapes

Today in Focus

Louis and daughter, Lizzie, Right to Roam, Totnes

The fight for the right to roam in the English countryside

A campaign to widen access to the English countryside is gathering momentum. However, as Helena Horton reports from a mass trespass event in Devon, there is little sign the government is willing to budge.

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

Steve Bell’s cartoon.
Steve Bell’s cartoon. Illustration: Steve Bell/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

The Black Horse Tavern in Miramichi, Canada
The Black Horse Tavern in Miramichi, Canada Photograph: canadabrian/Alamy

A small Canadian town has become gripped by a mysterious horror-themed treasure hunt, with thousands of local people grappling with a succession of clues – and the promise of a cash prize.

Clues posted on Facebook by a shadowy figure calling themselves Roman Dungarvan are themed around the murder and apparent ghostly return of a 19th-century cook. “I don’t think anything of this magnitude has ever happened in Miramichi,” said Adams Robichaud, a high school student. “And we just absolutely love it.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

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Dive Deeper:
Boris Johnson to visit Northern Ireland as DUP halts Assembly return with veto on new Speaker
British prime minister Boris Johnson will visit Northern Ireland on Monday amid a deepening political emergency in which the DUP…
Sinn Féin leader says Boris Johnson using Northern Ireland as ‘pawn’ in games with EU
Mary Lou McDonald says Tories in ‘cahoots’ with DUP in threatening to tear up post-Brexit protocol
PM ‘in cahoots’ with DUP on Stormont blocking tactics, Sinn Fein claims
The Prime Minister is due to travel to Belfast on Monday for talks with Northern Ireland’s political leaders amid the…
DUP condemned for paralysing Stormont as protocol row deepens
‘Stop pandering to the DUP’, prospective first minister Michelle O’Neill to tell Boris Johnson in planned visit on Monday
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
What now for Northern Ireland as Stormont assembly grinds to halt?
The DUP has moved to stall power sharing by refusing to back the election of a new speaker
Boris Johnson ‘in cahoots’ with DUP on Stormont blocking tactics, Sinn Fein says
SINN Fein has accused the UK Government of conniving with the DUP to deliberately block powersharing at Stormont.
Get all your news in one place